There has been a lot of noise coming out of The Social Network, and not a lot of it is positive for the film’s central figure, Facebook (co-)Founder Mark Zuckerberg. (Though there has been a lot of positive reviews for the film, mainly because it’s fucking awesome and you should absolutely to see it.) The film does not go out of its way to present the current CEO of Facebook as a crook or scoundrel; but that the portrayal of the the character by Jesse Eisenburg is that of a blank slate, as portrayed by Jessie Eisenburg. He is so coldly removed from our reality, our values, that he should be hated for the way he built an e-empire and the actions he took to sustain it. But in the end, after the lawsuits, the hurt feelings, the hubris and the betrayal, wasn’t Zuckerberg right?
The hook of the story is built upon a wonderful mix of old and new business, or more specifically, how some things will never change. Like the creation of any giant, life-altering invention, Facebook had humble beginnings. Our internet and social lives changed forever because a teen boy was soundly rejected by a very cute and intelligent girl (who oh just so happened to attend the school I graduated from) and it sent him on a cheap-beer-fueled attack against her using the best powers he had available to him: the internet.
Mark Zuckerberg saw the internet differently than how the general public perceived it. Many saw it (and still see it) as a mystical series of tubes where you could play fantasy baseball, watch an ungodly amount of porn, and send an article to your friend on cnn.com through electronic mail messages. Zuckerberg saw it as a natural extension of current life, and especially current society. As someone who grew up on AOL Instant Messanger, he understood how truly un-unique the internet was. He knew that it could tap into our deepest insecurities as an extension of our own daily, normal, un-plugged-in lives. Simply, he recognized the ability to turn the internet into the hallways in middle school, the exact place most of our emotional lives never developed past.
As we see him eviscerate this poor girl via Facemash.com and a belittling series of blog entries, the audience builds up scorn for this boy who is alarmingly pulled back from normal human connections and, seemingly, our collective set of values. Oh the irony, we think (with help from the excellent script and direction), how the man who created a social revolution is terribly ill-equipped to function in our society! What a quaint way to wrap it all up! But haven’t all geniuses been misunderstood? Isn’t that the curse that goes with the gifts which helps differentiate Them from Us? Without that distance, would Mark be able to see the forest from the trees and create that social matrix? While we’re pre-occupied dealing with what a bastard Mark is, the movie shows us just how much he earns his standing as the world’s youngest billionaire. And, more so, how risky and ballsy it was to accomplish in the way it had to be accomplished.
Intercut with the opening scene of how the seeds of Facebook was created, we see a party at one of the finishing clubs that Zuckerberg is trying so hard to get in to. He wants in because, like any social club, it validates its members with its exclusivity and, later, acceptance. The prevailing idea that you can’t succeed out there if you can’t even make it in here. Ironically, as Mark is creating Facemash.com over a period of several hours, we see what the institutionalized movers-and-shakers are doing: partying. Enjoying a world they think will wait for them because they are in Harvard, their parents are Successful and it’s a birthright. A theme develops: just because it worked before does not mean it works now.
From there, the movie emotionally focuses on the building of Facebook and Zuckerberg’s slow-moving betrayal of his co-founder and original money man, Eduardo Saverin, played movingly by Andrew Garfield. We see how Eduardo can be put on the fast track to entrance to the old-world club, and how it gets to Zuckerberg, possibly giving motivation to resentment of Eduardo from Mark. But, taking the emotion (and puppy dog sadness of Garfield) away from the situation, and the overall simplicity in that view (as suggested by Saverin himself) isn’t Zuckerberg right to do what he does?
Underneath the emotion, there is a battle for the soul of how business is done, perfectly personified by forward-thinking Mark and old-world Eduardo. As soon as TheFacebook starts–about twenty schools in–Eduardo immediately wants to run advertising on it, following the same handbook as previous social networking sites myspace, Friendster, and the Winklevoss-backed ConnectU (what Facebook was going to be, according to a lawsuit or two). Mark, however, is steadfastly against the idea. Looking around the general internet landscape at the moment, it’s easy to see who won that battle (and, in lock step, the battle for the web). Eduardo only knew how business was run, and being a business major at Harvard, jeez, how much more classical-old-school can you get? Mark was looking for what was to come. This is where the rift truly began.
Further bolstering Mark’s eyes to the future, we have the Winlevosses and their Harvard Connect site, which will work because it’s exclusively for Harvard men. Right idea, wrong implementation. Zuckerberg knew that Harvard exclusivity is too limiting. By slowly rolling out his own site across the land, one school at a time, he builds exclusivity while expanding in the same stroke. The Harvard Connect would never expand pass the Charles; Facebook barely remembers passing over the river on its way to global domination.
Truth in practice: I was a member of the TheFacebook in August 04, back when it was only twenty or so schools, and friends of mine who wouldn’t join for another year or two still harken back and say “Facebook was better when it was just for college kids.” They weren’t in it nearly as long as I was, but they still took the service as theirs, as exclusive members, and when the service when beyond their small scope, it lost something special. Essetially, Zuckerberg realized that TheFacebook was a cool indie band, and if they sell-out too soon, they’ll risk the coolness factor of being independent and special to a small group that excludes the rest (in this case, kids in college vs. the rest of humanity). It’s arbitrary, but just as Team Winklevoss cannot understand how Zuckerberg said he gave away a program for free that Microsoft was willing to pay a lot of money for, they are not prepared for the internet paradigm as it stands, or as it will be, thanks for people like Mark.
The Iago-And-Othello-As-Internet-Tycoons story picks up when the former Napster head Sean Parker (a mesmerizing Justin Timberlake [seriously]) finally comes around. Then that dastardly Parker “woos” Mark away to Palo Alto, across the country from where the product was founded and, ultimately, away from Eduardo. And oh how we feel for Eduardo! Poor Mark has been played by that evil temptress Sean, filling his head with lies and promises of grandeur! To move away from old-world money (New York) and towards the tech capital of the world (California), to bring in more money from investors to put into the product and not from advertisers looking to exploit the product when the consumer base was not yet at its zenith…what a terrible thing for Zuckerberg to do! HOW DARE HE! RIGHTEOUS INDIGNATION!!!
Why do we not give Mark credit here? He’s obviously not a dummy; he won’t be so casually seduced by someone who didn’t have ideas that are in lock-step with his own. He barely has the time for Sean’s insistence on the booze, girls, and fame that come from such an idea. Yes, Sean clearly moved in to try and oust Eduardo, but who’s to say Eduardo hadn’t run his course with this idea? He fought Mark at every turn and, in the end, Mark was clearly right. Eduardo was stuck in the past; it was moving “too quickly without him,” regardless of whether Parker was there or not. The project moved past Eduardo’s capacity to market and exploit the product, Mark realized this, used Sean as a means to bolster his feelings on the issue, used him as a way to edge Eduardo and his vote out by bringing in Sean, and eventually found a way to move on–move forward–without him.
In the end, I pity Eduardo for not being able to see the future the same way his co-founder did. I pity him for putting in so much work in a lost cause, thousands of miles away from where the real, innovative work was being done. I pity him for not remembering his old school business teachings and having a personal lawyer present to look over contracts that he signed willy-nilly. I pity him for not having the stones to go after the big marlin and not the little trout along the way. I pity him for getting suckered into an old-as-time corporate takeover and not being smart enough (or, possibly, being just naive enough) to recognize that you don’t mix business and friendship. True, Mark lost his only friend. He only gained billions of dollars and power over the most widely-used instrument for human connection and interaction since we moved into two different tribes.
Overall, not such a bad deal.
Photo courtesy of this post from the Huffington…Post. Damned syntax.